"Winning isn't everything, but wanting to win is."
~ Vince Lombardi
As many of you know, I have had the privilege of coaching high school cross country for the past several years. It's been a remarkable journey that I never imagined I would undertake. But I will forever be grateful that I have been given this opportunity to learn and grow alongside these young athletes.
At every banquet, I have told the kids that they were the best team ever. And it always has been true at the time. However, I honestly think this year's crew will be among my all-time favorites. There was something really special and unique about this particular combination of kids.
There was the senior girl who never had gone out for a sport before. She ended up being one of our best open division runners and a squad leader. There was the unbelievably talented boy who for a few seasons only did cross-country to augment his training in another sport but always was one of our leading runners because of his innate competitiveness. There was the top varsity girl who made us smile with her infectious laugh but when it came to race time, she was all business - pushing herself as hard as she could to do her best.
There was the boy whose sole mission for this season was to do what he could to get the squad back to State and he worked for it every day. There was the girl who came to us from out-of-state her junior year and spent that season battling some physical issues and self-imposed limitations on her ability to race a 5K. Yet in this her senior year, she discovered a confidence and joy in running and competing that wasn't previously there.
There was the boy who considered himself more proficient in other sports but steadily moved up the ranks through the open division to varsity in time to secure a spot on the State squad. And the girl who despite being perfectly capable of running a masterful race, continued to suffer in competition until she finally let go of her insecurities and ran her own (nearly perfect) 5K at the Regional meet. Or our freshmen class who all frequently ran out of their minds and loved every minute of it.
I could go on telling you something special about each of our 40-plus team members but I think you get the picture. Simply put, this was an extraordinary group of kids.
But for all the assistance and guidance I provided them, these kids have taught me valuable lessons and lifted me up in ways I didn't think possible. While I was talking to them about proper form, they were teaching me about grace under pressure. Many of these kids are also among the school's top scholars. They worked hard to become better runners even as they studied hard to become more accomplished, well-rounded students.
While I was providing them with tips for running more efficiently, they were showing me how a truly cohesive team takes care of and supports one another other. They set up group texts to coordinate activities and the all-important decision about what to wear to school before a meet. Everyone was included in any squad decision made - even a few tough ones about who got to run what.
While I was helping them understand how to race better, they were demonstrating their tenacity and mental toughness. We threw them into some difficult situations - like literally back-to-back races, one of which was run at 10,000 feet above sea level on a course in Leadville. They did it all and more leading me to believe this probably was one of the most mentally tough group of 14- to 18-year-olds I've ever seen.
Showing up every day to work with them was a joy. I loved listening to their stories on our runs. I thrilled in their victories no matter how big or small. I comforted them in their defeats reminding them that even the best athletes have bad days. Even so, I am not sure who got more out of the relationship between coach and athlete. My only hope is that I have inspired them as much as they have inspired me.